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Baltimore County park to celebrate 283rd birthday of historic African-American figure

Justine Schaeffer, director of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, is shown looking at a garden next to a replica of Banneker's cabin on the grounds of the park in Oella. The Baltimore County facility celebrates Banneker's 283rd birthday on Saturday, Nov. 8.
Justine Schaeffer, director of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, is shown looking at a garden next to a replica of Banneker's cabin on the grounds of the park in Oella. The Baltimore County facility celebrates Banneker's 283rd birthday on Saturday, Nov. 8. (Staff photo by Lauren Loricchio)

Saturday marks a special occasion at the 142-acre Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella as the center will celebrate the 283rd birthday of Benjamin Banneker, a prominent African American historical figure who once lived in the area with his family.

In addition to birthday cake, there will be Colonial games, storytelling and farmstead hikes and tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 8. Admission is $2, free to museum members.

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"We remember him in a park because of his scientific accomplishments," said Justine Schaeffer, director of the park and museum. "He had very little formal education, with a few years of learning at a Quaker school, but he continued to learn."

Banneker, born Nov. 9, 1731, is well known for being the one of the first African American men of science and is one of the most prominent historical figures from the Baltimore County area, Schaeffer said.

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He was a scientist, astronomer, mathematician, abolitionist, surveyor and farmer during a time when most blacks in the country were slaves.

Banneker was born a free man and was taught to read by his grandmother. He wrote six almanacs and was a lifelong learner, constantly teaching himself about science and mathematics.

"We really have an important and powerful American story to tell," said Willa Banks, a program educator and historian at the museum. "Banneker's story about achievement, when he had to overcome great obstacles, is something that is universal."

Tucked away in rural Oella, between Catonsville and Ellicott City, the historical park and museum was established in 1998 after archaeologists and historians rediscovered the land where Banneker lived with his family of free tobacco farmers.

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The museum not only has exhibitions about the history of the site, but also offers educational programming for students and adults. There are also six hiking trails on the park grounds that connect to the Trolley Trail system and community events.

There are numerous gardens on site that feature herbs and vegetables grown in Banneker's day, along with a replica of Banneker's cabin, complete with a bed, fireplace and eating utensils.

"We're expanding the farmstead to be able to tell Banneker's story better," Schaeffer said. "We're thinking about a tobacco drying barn; that may be our next step."

Schaeffer became director a year-and-a-half ago. She brings seven years of experience with the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, and a master's degree in wildlife biology to her position. She is certified a Maryland Master Naturalist by the University of Maryland Extension, which is why she has focused on environmental stewardship at the Banneker museum, she said.

Schaeffer said the county park aims to reach out to the community "in ways that teach about Banneker, but we need to take care of that property, too."

"We do a lot more programming than was done in the past, especially on weekends," Schaeffer said. "We have something happening every Saturday."

When she came on board, the center began offering Saturday programs, adult education programs, more student programs and reaching out to local Boy Scout troops.

That includes nature programming to teach about Banneker's farmstead, Schaeffer said.

They offered a new day camp last summer, which will be expanded this summer, Schaeffer said.

"The demographic I'm looking for is people who will come back," she said. "It's one thing to come for a tour one time to learn about Banneker, but I want them to come back and take advantage of our other programs and [the] park."

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